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Tips for Safely Using Medications

Whether it's a drug prescribed by a doctor or just a bottle of acetaminophen, medicines require some special care.

The United States Food and Drug Administration and the American Pharmaceutical Association provide some tips for safely using and storing medicines. And remember, these rules apply to nonprescription drugs, such as ibuprofen and cold medicine, as well as prescription drugs. Even vitamins (especially those containing iron) can be very dangerous if inadvertently taken in excess—most commonly by young children.

Know Your Medications

If a medicine is in your house, know what it is for. Whether the doctor prescribed it or it's just an over-the-counter drug, if you don't know what it's for, find out. Read the label and if you don't understand anything you read, take the bottle to the pharmacy and ask the pharmacist.

Here's what you need to know about any drug you take:

  • The name
  • What it is for
  • When to take it
  • How much to take
  • When to stop taking it
  • Any special instructions for taking it (for example, with food, without food, before bed only, etc.)
  • What the potential side effects are
  • What food, drink, or other medicines it interacts with

Store Medications in a Dark, Cool, Dry Place

Medicines can degrade if they get too hot, too moist, or too cold. When a medicine degrades it may become less effective, totally ineffective, or possibly even dangerous to take.

Note: The bathroom cabinet is not a cool, dry place.

The bathroom may be a convenient place to keep medicines, but it is probably the most moist room in the house, so don't keep your medicines there. Try putting them in a kitchen cabinet. And don't leave them in your car where they will be exposed to extreme temperatures.

Keep Medications in Their Original Containers

This is the only way to ensure that you know what medicine is in the container. Plus, if you have side effects or a bad reaction to a medicine, the medical personnel who try to help you need to know what you have taken.

Throw Away Expired Medications

All medicines expire, even aspirin and cold medicine. When a medicine expires it may become less effective or totally ineffective, or it may even degrade to a point where it is dangerous to take. DO NOT flush old medicines down the toilet unless specific instructions tell you to do so. Instead take them out of the original container, mix them with other subsances such as cat litter, place them in a sealable bag and throw them into the garbage. Another option is to take them to a community drug take-back program. If you are in doubt about how to dispose of the medicine, talk to your pharmacist.

Never Take Someone Else's Medicine

If a medicine is not prescribed for you, don't take it. You don't know how the drug will affect you, and you don't know how it will interact with other drugs you take or food and drink you consume.

Take Your Medicine as Directed—All of It!

Sometimes when symptoms clear up and you're feeling better, you're tempted to stop taking a medicine. If your doctor prescribes a medicine, take all of it as directed. Many medicines, such as antibiotics, do much more than relieve symptoms. They are working inside your body, whether you are aware of it or not. Stopping medicines early can cause your illness to relapse, or even worse, it can lead to more virulent infections.

Report Medication Problems to Your Healthcare Provider

If a medicine is causing unpleasant side effects or is not working for you, tell your doctor. There may be other medicines you could take or medicines that can control the side effects. Don't suffer through unpleasant side effects, but don't stop taking the medicine either. Talk to your doctor.


American Pharmacists Association

United States Food and Drug Administration


Canadian Pharmacists Association

Health Canada


American Pharmacists' Association. APhA provides guidance on proper medication disposal use with respect and discard with care. American Pharmacists' Association website. Available at: Created February 14, 2007. Accessed July 22, 2010.

American Pharmacists Association website. Available at:

United States Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: